Interview: Caitlin Kelly, ‘Malled’ Author, Discusses Writing About Retail, Meeting Deadlines and Protecting Intellectual Property

Caitlin Kelly's memoir would make a great gift for anyone who has worked retail.

Caitlin Kelly is the author of MALLED: MY UNINTENTIONAL CAREER IN RETAIL,  published this spring by Portfolio, the business imprint of Penguin Group. Her memoir offers an insightful take on the retail industry based on her two years as a part-time sales associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban New York mall.

Caitlin’s extensive journalism background makes her an authoritative guide to lead readers behind the cash registers and into the culture of retail.

MALLED details her transition from asking questions for a living to being “invisibly helpful” to demanding customers. When faced with a concrete figure about how a sales associate’s behavior could affect the store’s sales, Caitlin asks, “Was it true? Who knew? None of us would have dared to challenge this statistic. Freshly hired into low-wage jobs, it simply wasn’t our place to question authority.”

While MALLED is definitely a memoir, it’s also peppered with thoughtful statistics and quotes from industry specialists, making it a useful tool in examining today’s economy and the hidden costs of low-wage jobs. The book would make a fantastic holiday gift for anyone who has worked retail.

Along with being an acclaimed journalist, editor and consultant, Caitlin is the author of BLOWN AWAY:  AMERICAN WOMEN AND GUNS. She blogs at Broadside. And check out her website for a comprehensive list of writing tips.

I’m so pleased to welcome Caitlin Kelly to Seven Questions.

1. Tell us about your memoir, MALLED.

It’s the true story of what it’s like to work in retail, whether on salary and commission for a major department store, or for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. It lays bare the reality of the nation’s third largest industry and largest source of new jobs in this recession–in which many workers are desperate for full-time jobs but are offered only part-time, split shifts, no benefits and raises of 10 to 30 cents an hour. My goal was to make shoppers more aware of what’s happening behind the cash wrap and throughout the global supply chain–like the Chinese workers making components for our cellphones and laptops who were jumping out of the windows because their working conditions were so appalling. It’s funny, lively and truthful. I’ve received dozens of emails from readers, retail veterans, who tell me how accurate it is.

2. At what point did you decide to write about your two-year stint in retail? What inspired you to make that decision?

I wrote an essay for The New York Times in February 2009 that prompted worldwide reaction, from as far away as Dubai and Brazil. I heard from 150 people, both in retail and journalism, who really appreciated my perspective on both industries. It showed me there was intense interest in the topic–we all shop! I found an agent in June 2009 who helped me develop the idea and we sold the book in September 2009. I had to be persuaded by several writer friends and my agent that there was, in fact, enough, and sufficiently dramatic, material for a book. Working retail, especially for young Americans, is often a rite of passage, so it’s a subject that many readers–of all ages–can relate to.

3. Caitlin, you’re a seasoned journalist, adept at the impartial interview, and that really comes through in the pages of your memoir. It’s an intoxicating mix of personal experience and investigative journalism. How did your research process for MALLED differ from being assigned an impersonal topic by an editor? Did gathering information about retail practices and the recession illuminate or change your perspective on your time behind the cash wrap?

Caitlin Kelly

This is my second book, so I was accustomed to assigning work to myself, as it were. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to include and just had to go out and find key people: consultants, analysts, retail executives, associates, managers, store owners, to speak with me. I read 10 books on low-wage labor for background, and several helpful white papers supplied to me by a source who is a major player in the industry. Only one person–the CEO of The Container Store (through his PR staff)–was unavailable. Everyone else was happy to participate, and the more high-level people I spoke to, the more credibility I gained.

What I learned as I wrote the book was how typical my own experience had been and how very little many senior retail executives care about what the associate feels and thinks. Many of them see retail associates, literally, as “disposable.” I found that chilling but instructive.

4. I imagine MALLED readers include memoir fans, industry veterans and people like me, consumers who have never worked retail. How does it feel to have your book out in the world? Have other sales associates approached you with their stories or to thank you for letting shoppers know what it’s like to work grueling shifts for low pay?

It’s exciting. It’s been painful to read some of the reviews that dismiss it as a personal rant, when it contains so much original national reporting. But the book has really taken on a life of its own: it’s been sold to China and I’ve been invited to address three major retail conferences, so my message has been heard by executives from major companies like Swarovski, Macy’s, Target and Best Buy.

It’s also been really gratifying to hear from many retail veterans, from associates and managers and consultants, that they find it accurately reflects their experiences.

One of them wrote: “Have you been sitting on my shoulder for 23 years?” That means a lot to me, to know I got it right and that others working retail appreciate my goal in writing it–to make readers more aware of what’s happening in these stores.

I get email almost daily from workers thanking me for writing it, which is tremendously satisfying. One goal for writing the book was to raise the consciousness  of managers and shoppers in how they treat retail workers. If MALLED has changed a few minds–and I hear from some readers it’s changed how they think and behave when they shop–my job is done!

5. You describe yourself as a “generalist” in terms of your freelance writing career. What does that mean? What are some of the most unusual topics you’ve covered?

Freelance journalists are told to become specialists, or no editor will assign to them. You’re supposed to focus more narrowly on parenting or health or travel, all of which some writers do. I’m interested in a really wide range of subjects–from antiques and decorative arts to business, design, travel. I get bored writing on one thing, so I prefer to write on anything that interests me. I’ve found it works out just fine, as I’m willing and able to jump into a wide array of issues; I’m not pegged as someone who only does celebrity profiles, for example.

One of the things I enjoy is participatory journalism–so for stories I’ve: gone to shooting school, sailed aboard an America’s Cup yacht, slept in a hammock and climbed the rigging of a Tall Ship for a week, taken an eight-hour outdoors wilderness survival class. I’ve written on everything from guns to doorknobs, and have interviewed convicted felons, an admiral, a few celebrities, elected officials and Olympic athletes. I love the variety of my work!

6. I understand there has been some interest in turning MALLED into a sitcom. Could you tell us a little about that exciting possibility?

My agent saw the possibilities for a sitcom the very first time we met and discussed the book. We were shopping it for months and received considerable interest from a variety of production companies in Hollywood. It’s now in development as a possible CBS sitcom and I’ll know in January if they’ve ordered a pilot, and in May if they decide to order a few episodes.

The larger lesson–and it’s an important one for every writer working today–is to remember that our work is intellectual property. Protect it! It’s “content” that can have many lucrative lives: as a book, film, documentary, mini-series, television show. In order to reap the full benefit of that, you need an agent who understands this and has good contacts with other agents in those worlds. I’d also suggest using an entertainment lawyer (as I did) to review any non-book contracts as the language used is very different and unfamiliar–like “modified adjusted gross.”

7. Journalism is obviously deadline oriented. What kind of goals did you set for yourself when writing MALLED? It seems like timeliness was especially important due to needing to keep all the economy statistics up-to-date. Please share any advice you have for aspiring memoirists in terms of staying on track with the writing process.

I started writing the book in January 2010 and turned in a few chapters by February, but they didn’t meet my editor’s standards. So, instead of continuing to write, I spent February through June 2010 reading 10 books on low-wage labor for background and every day I kept up with news reports on retail to stay current with developments. In May 2010, for example, there was a lot of coverage of the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen China where workers were committing suicide because their working conditions were so poor. These workers make many of the components for the computers and cellphones we all use, so I wanted to include this.

It’s not complicated to stay on top of the news, but if you’re writing about something that changes daily, it’s incumbent upon you to do so.

I also hired two researchers who helped me stay on track with my own work by doing some interviewing for me and digging up statistics I needed. (I did this with my first book as well.)

To stay on track with your deadlines, know your own writing rhythm. Some writers need a tremendous amount of time to write, revise, polish, revise some more. Some are so intimidated by the process they take ten times longer to produce a chapter than those of us who want to get the thing done (well) and get on to the next project.

My motto is basic: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Get it down, revise it, show it to your first readers. I always push my editor’s deadline back by a month so I can show the manuscript to my five first readers to get their feedback. That way I have time to absorb their insights and make the changes they suggest before it goes to my editor.

No book is ever “perfect.” There are writers who spend, literally, a decade on their book. That’s not the sort of book I write. Mine tend to be more news-driven and timely, so I need to get them written, from the start to accepted manuscript–as I did with MALLED–within a year. That means moving quickly, being decisive and working efficiently. Having a very clear idea what you want to say is essential. You can’t waffle or wring your hands or keep changing your mind!

In May 2010, to meet my June deadline, I needed to produce 30,000 words within a month. I set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day and did it. Use your word count function to keep on track!

Thank you so much for participating in the Seven Questions series, Caitlin! 

Caitlin Kelly’s website is caitlinkelly.com. MALLED is available at bookstores around the country as well as online stores such as Amazon.com. For more information, check out the website for MALLED. Or learn more about her nonfiction book, BLOWN AWAY. And Caitlin blogs at Broadside Blog.

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1bhaB-wX

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Books, Journalism, Reading, Seven Questions, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Interview: Caitlin Kelly, ‘Malled’ Author, Discusses Writing About Retail, Meeting Deadlines and Protecting Intellectual Property

  1. Jo Eberhardt says:

    Thanks for a great Seven Questions, Laura. After having worked the retail frontline for 12 years, I can only imagine that I will enjoy (and relate) to this book. It will be interesting to see how my experiences in Australia differ from the American retail industry, and if they really differ at all.

    • What an interesting perspective, Jo! I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts about the differences between the American retail industry and the Australian one. And I’m sure you have a ton of stories from those 12 years!

  2. Laura, I actually read about this book a while ago and also read an excerpt from the article that got so much attention. I thank you for giving Caitlin yet another venue to expose this important issue. This is a crucial time in our economy and the cruel facts are that people have been willing to take any wage to at least be able to put food on the table or stay ahead of their mortgages.

    Malled is a book everyone should read 🙂

  3. Emma Burcart says:

    Great interview! I only wonder if reading the book would cause me to lose some love for one of my favorite activities. I love shopping and I wouldn’t want anything to come between me and my mall!

    • I don’t know about infringing on your love for shopping, but as someone who never worked retail, MALLED gave me a different perspective on the folks hired by big companies to sell their brands. Some of Caitlin’s stories about how rude customers can be reminded me, oddly enough, of one of my jobs as a newspaper editor.

  4. Great quote–Perfect is the enemy of good. I’ve heard it before, but forgotten it. I shouldn’t.

  5. Debra Kristi says:

    I have a nice little background in retail and ever since those days, I hate shopping. Used to love it before, but not anymore. My wardrobe lacks and getting out to find things is a stressor for me. Nice little side-effect. LOL I especially detest the stores at the holiday times.

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